Chinese & Islamic

Print edition : September 22, 2006

Orthodoxy among Chinese Muslims is on the rise but Chinese Islam retains characteristics that set it apart.

PALLAVI AIYAR in Yinchuan, Ningxia

WOMEN IMAMS AND exclusively female mosques are unique to China.-

THE Muezzin sounds the evening call to prayer. White skullcaps glint in the fading brightness of the setting sun as the faithful make their way into the mosque. The "shush" of whispered salaam alaikums fills the hall. Outside, the mosque's minarets stretch up into the sky; a single crescent moon decorates the top of the green dome.

An unremarkable scene, were it not for the fact that this mosque is tucked away in the landlocked interior of officially atheist and traditionally Buddhist China. When the imam preaches, he speaks Mandarin Chinese. Under the skullcaps and behind the veils of the men and women gathered, there are Chinese faces concentrated in prayer.

Reliable data are difficult to obtain but China's estimated 20-30 million Muslims may in fact be the second largest religious community in the country, after the 100 million or so Buddhists. Islam in China is, moreover, currently in the process of a revival, spurred by increasing trade links with West Asia that have ended the centuries-long isolation of Chinese Muslims from the wider Islamic world.

Greater orthodoxy among Chinese Muslims is on the rise as ever-larger numbers go on Haj and youngsters return from their studies abroad in Muslim countries. Nonetheless, Chinese Islam retains characteristics that set it apart. The communist revolution with its emphasis on gender equality has left its mark here. Mao famously said that "women hold up half the sky", a lesson China's Muslims seem to have imbibed well. Female imams (Nu Ahong) and exclusively female mosques (Nu Si) play a unique role in the Middle Kingdom.

Islam in China has a long tradition stretching back over 1,200 years. The largest community among the Chinese Muslim groups is the Hui. Numbering about 10 million, the Hui are descendents of West Asian traders and their converts who first travelled to China along the silk route during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Centuries of isolation meant that they blended in with the largely Confucian and Buddhist Han Chinese who make up over 90 per cent of the country's population.

The Hui speak Chinese and look like the Han. The primary way of telling the two communities apart has traditionally been the absence of pork from the diet of Hui Muslims, a meat that is the primary staple for the Han. The Hui are also not to be confused with the other large Muslim minority group in China, the Uighurs, who are of Turkic ethnicity and live mostly in the western province of Xinjiang.

The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a northern province flanked by the Gobi desert, is home to 1.8 million Hui Muslims or 35 per cent of the province's total population. Ningxia has some 700 officially licensed imams and more than 3,000 mosques. According to Ma Xiao, vice-president of the Islamic Association of Ningxia, there are currently over 5,000 Manla, or young Islamic disciples, studying Arabic and Islamic doctrine part time in the province.

Certain restrictions continue to apply on Islam, as on all religions, in China. For example proselytising is forbidden and children below 18 years are not permitted to receive religious instruction at all. Moreover, all imams must be licensed by a government-approved body and accept the superiority of the state over any religious authority. Nonetheless, as a visit to virtually any part of Ningxia will reveal, the Hui are embracing their faith with enthusiasm.

In recent years, Ningxia has benefited from donations worth millions of dollars from the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank, which has enabled a facelift for the Islamic College in the provincial capital Yinchuan and the establishment of several Arabic language schools.

Interest in learning Arabic is booming, so much so that even the Ningxia Economic Institute has begun to offer three- to four-year-long Arabic courses. The Ningxia University opened an Arabic language department last year.

THE XI GUAN mosque in Yinchuan.-

At the Xi Guan mosque in Yinchuan, over 300 students have begun to study Arabic after it started offering a free language course two years ago - a third of these are women. Aged mostly between 30 and 70, they say the chance to study Arabic brings them closer to their religion.

"Earlier we were too busy just making a living. Now that we are richer we have more time to focus on the spiritual and by learning Arabic I can read the Koran in the original. As a Muslim this is my duty," says Song Xiu Lan, a 40-year-old housewife. Song and her classmates study Arabic for two hours every day from Monday to Friday.

"When I was a girl most of us females were illiterate. We knew nothing about the world. Taking these classes gives us so much knowledge about how to conduct ourselves as good Muslims and the right values with which to bring up our families," says Ma Fen Zhen, who, at 70, is the oldest student at these classes.

A hundred miles east of Yinchuan in the small town of Ling Wu, 50 other women, their heads covered with scarves, sit in a room reciting verses in Arabic from the Koran. They are being taught by Yang Yu Hong, one of two women imams at the Tai Zi mosque. Yang received her title of Imam from the Islamic Association four years ago. She is one of approximately 200 certified women imams in the province.

Yang's husband, also an imam, is currently studying theology in Egypt. She says that both he and other members of her family supported her decision to study religion and qualify for the title of imam.

Yang adds that she does not see anything un-Islamic about the concept of women imams. "There are many things that are easier for women to talk about with other women. And everyone, man or woman, has a duty to study and understand the religion."

While the women are granted the title of imam they are still not allowed to lead men in prayers. Their role is more that of a teacher and their students are exclusively female. "The women imams are respected people whom the community looks up to but of course they do not have the same religious powers as men. Men and women are equal but their roles are different," says Ma Xiao.

Ling Wu's Tai Zi mosque has been rebuilt four times in the past 20 years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) most places of worship were demolished and Tai Zi suffered the same fate. Since the 1980s, however, a religious renaissance accompanied by increasing prosperity has led to the local Muslims donating enough money for four major expansions of the building.

Ma Zian, the mosque's head imam, is 80 years old. "I have seen everything: the pre-revolution period, the communist accession and the Cultural Revolution. I can tell you that at last we are quite free to practise our faith. It is so much better for us now," he says.

But as is often the case in China, the driving force behind this Islamic revival is economic. "Other provinces have ports and natural resources. In Ningxia we have Muslims. This is our competitive advantage," says Chen Zhigang, Deputy Director-General of the Investment Promotion Bureau of Ningxia.

To exploit this "competitive advantage" the provincial government organised for the first time a massive halal food exhibition in August, through which it aimed to establish connections between the food industries of Ningxia and West Asia. Chen Zhigang says that contracts to the tune of 10 billion Yuan ($1.25 billion) were signed during the four-day-long exhibition.

One of Ningxia's largest exports to other parts of China is Arabic interpreters, much in demand in certain cities. For example, there are over 2,000 such interpreters from Ningxia in the southern city of Yiwu alone, where the world's largest wholesale market attracts a steady stream of buyers from West Asia. The average salary of these interpreters is Renminbi 3,000 ($375) a month, equal to the annual income of most households in the poorer parts of Ningxia.

Islam and trade are thus increasingly blending in a delicate mix to the benefit of both religious and secular life.

But while the Hui Muslim's Arabic language skills and cultural affinity with the oil-rich West Asia are now being seen by the authorities as a valuable economic resource, the stronger sense of group identity amongst the Hui fostered by these renewed linkages with the Islamic world, is leading to new challenges.

In the past, the Hui were among the least orthodox Muslims in the world. Many smoked and drank, few grew beards and Hui women rarely wore veils. Until 1985 Chinese Muslims were banned from going to Mecca on Haj.

Increased contact with West Asia has, however, wrought changes. Last year, over 8,000 Chinese went on Haj. Hundreds of Hui students have also begun to study abroad in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. On their return they carry stricter ideas of Islam. Mosques in Ningxia now receive worshippers five times a day, more Hui women have taken to wearing headscarves and skullcaps are in wide evidence.

"After we began to interact with Muslims from other countries we realised what a big gap there was between their level of understanding about Islam and ours," says Luo Zhan Jun, the head imam of Xi Guan mosque. According to Luo Zhan Jun, even a decade ago being Muslim for most Hui simply meant landing up at the mosque for big festivals like Id. "Most people did not take Islam as something fundamental to their everyday life. This is finally changing," he concludes.

There is a strong identification among the Hui community today with the wider problems of the Islamic world. "It is American policy that has given all of us Muslims a bad reputation," says Yang, Tai Zi mosque's woman imam, quivering with indignation. "We are a peace-loving religion but look what they [the Americans] have turned us into. Look what lies they spread about us," she continues. All the 50 women surrounding her nod slowly in assent.

"Yes, there are some Muslim terrorists but you cannot judge an entire religion by the actions of a few extremists," adds Luo Zhan Jun. "It is also hypocritical of some countries to blame Islam for the world's troubles when they themselves are the first to start wars."

For many of the Han, this identification of the Hui with communities outside China is problematic. "Earlier the Hui were just like us except they didn't eat pork. Now they think they are very special. They think of themselves as foreigners," a Han foreign office official in Ningxia complained.

Confrontations between the two communities are often sparked by minor incidents. In 2004, for example, large parts of Henan province were placed under martial law after fighting between the Hui and the Han left dozens dead. The fighting began when a Hui man bumped into a Han girl with his vehicle and refused to pay compensation.

In an attempt to mollify potentially restive minority communities like the Hui, the Chinese authorities offer a variety of sops. For example, the Hui are exempt from China's one-child policy and affirmative action schemes reserve special seats for them at universities and government departments. But in interior provinces such as Ningxia, which have been left out of the economic boom of China's coastal region, competition for jobs is intense and resentment against the Hui's "special" privileges is increasing. "The main job of every government official in Ningxia these days is to keep the peace with the Hui," says the foreign office official.

For the Hui, greater freedoms and contact with the wider world means they must undertake the difficult task of negotiating between their increasingly complex identities: at once Muslim, Hui and Chinese. For the Han, the challenge is to foster Hui culture without alienating the community from the rest of Chinese society. The manner in which both sides address these challenges will be key to the maintenance of social stability in China in the coming years.

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